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ASU Special Teams Preview: Zane Gonzalez May Be the Answer to the Sun Devils' Kicking Issues

There's nothing glamorous about punting and kicking, but both spots need to perform well for ASU to win the Pac-12 South.

Zane Gonzalez has switched his number from 48 to 5 for the regular season.
Zane Gonzalez has switched his number from 48 to 5 for the regular season.
ASU Athletics

The field goal is up, and it's wide right. The field goal is up, and it doesn't have the distance.

Those type of calls are too familiar to Sun Devil nation. Last season, Arizona State may have appeared in the 2012 Pac-12 Championship game if the kickers were more reliable.

Heading into 2013, putting the pigskin between the skinny yellow uprights was among Todd Graham's biggest concerns. Freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez put his worries to rest with a great training camp, earning the starting spot over Alex Garoutte and Jon Mora.

Garoutte and Mora combined to drill 65 percent of their attempts, which is slightly higher than a coin flip. The situation got so hopeless that Graham was forced to go for it on more fourth downs. In order for the Sun Devils to live up to the hype, the underrated dimension of nailing field goals must be fixed.

Graham demands every player to be perfect and Gonzalez complied by going 8-for-8 up at camp Tontozona. After the impressive performance, Gonzalez exhaled momentarily and felt proud of himself.

"It was actually pretty good, and it was a definitely a relief," Gonzalez on camp Tontozona. "Not many people are doing that (going 8-for-8), it was just a great experience."

Special teams coach Joe Lorig recruited Gonzalez hard, and now we are all beginning to see why. Drilling 45-yarders and long distance shots can only help, but Gonzalez is mainly focused on knocking home the easy attempts.

ASU may need three points to win with time expiring, and it's reasonable to wonder if Gonzalez handle the pressure. Kerry Crowley asked Gonzalez to address his best career kick, and the Texas native couldn't come up with anything. So beyond the optimism, the doubts still exists.

Gonzalez continues to work on the mental side of his job. "The mental part, the biggest part is to stay confident." Gonzalez said.

Meanwhile, replacing the personality and abilities of punter Josh Hubner seems daunting. During Graham's opening press conference of the season, he said the team improved everywhere besides punting. Dom Vizzare and Matt Haack are still battling for the position and Vizzare holds a slight advantage.

The 6-foot-4, 234-pound junior needs to demonstrate more consistency. Throughout fall camp, Vizzare has shown flashes of brilliance and disappointing 15-yard shanks.

Field position is one of the most underrated aspects of football. Vizarre or Haack can't afford to give opposing offenses like Washington, UCLA, Stanford and more short fields. The competition for punter should be resolved by now, and the normally nameless punters could be ASU's biggest headache.

On the bright side, the return game and cover units look strong. D.J. Foster will be back to receive kickoffs, providing ASU an opportunity to score points without Taylor Kelly touching the ball. The decision seems risky, but remember, coaches are paid to find ways to make their team better.

"I'm definitely happy to be back there, they expect big plays," Foster on special teams role. "We only had one kick return last year, so we are definitely looking for more explosive plays."

The explosive hometown hero needs additional chances to impact the game and Graham signed off on the decision. If some coaches choose to avoid Foster, he will be accompanied by fellow running back Marion Grice.

"He's a very dynamic athlete too," Foster's take on Grice's special teams abilities. "Whoever gets the ball we lead block for each other. We definitely have a good bond because we are both running backs. We definitely depend on each other."

Highly touted JUCO wideout Jaelen Strong also got looks to return the rock. For the punt returners, sophomore Richard Smith plans on taking those responsibilities. In 2012, Smith saw limited action because of Jamal Miles.

Smith will not only return punts, but will also start at the slot receiver spot. The shifty and small Calif. native possesses great vision and is capable of breaking ankles in the open field. Although, according to Doug Haller of the Arizona Republic, Smith has dropped a fair share of returns lately.

Coverage wise, plenty of the stars are expected to contribute. Graham stresses the importance of special teams, and won't leave it to chance by sending out reserves. Will Sutton, Chris Young and more will help the maroon and gold pin teams back deep in their own territory.

Name to Know

Zane Gonzalez- Freshman- 6'1", 160 pounds: Ex-Lou Groza award winner, Thomas Weber, was the last ASU kicker I didn't have to close my eyes for. Two years later, Zane Gonzalez appears to finally be solidifying the shaky unit. In the six or so practices I've witnessed, Gonzalez hasn't missed. According to Graham, Gonzalez sits right around 90 percent. Gonzalez doesn't have the strongest leg, but his accuracy makes him stand out. If Gonzalez can deliver on about 80 percent of his tries, he may put ASU in position to sniff the roses.

Alex Garoutte- Graduate student- 6'1", 209 pounds: Garoutte kicked away his dreams of being the starting field goal kicker by struggling to barely break the 50 percent marker. Instead of pouting and doing nothing, Garoutte found other ways to contribute. Since day one, Garoutte had the biggest leg of any of ASU's options. Unfortunately his accuracy and trajectory problems never got resolved. Garoutte showcases the long distances on kickoffs, regularly nailing the ball into the end zone and forcing touchbacks. The Phoenix native also maintains the responsibilities of point after attempts.

Matt Haack- Freshman- 6'1", 185 pounds: Stanford, Notre Dame and the University of Miami wanted Haack's services. The offers didn't entice him, electing to play in the valley of the sun. Haack may not get the starting job at punter, but he represents the future for the position. The freshman displays unusual talents while doing the rugby style of punt. Haack does so with either foot, willing to scramble to the right or left depending on the situation. Looking ahead, he simply needs to demonstrate improved consistency, like Vizzare. Despite the small frame, Haack provides more athleticism and versatility than the average punter. In high school. Haack was a solid receiver, which means he can be a valuable asset in potential fake punts. It wouldn't be surprising if Haack eventually surpassed Vizarre on the depth chart.

Dom Vizzare- Junior- 6'4, 234 pounds: The Tacoma, Wash. native succeeds one of ASU's best punters ever in Josh Hubner. Vizzare may seem similar to Hubner in stature, but the discrepancies at punting the ball separate the two. The coaching staff believes Vizzare can get the job done, but he won't be a weapon. On numerous occasions, Graham called Hubner a weapon teams need to game plan for. Vizzare can also implement the rugby style of punt, but he appears less confident at doing so compared to Haack. Graham thinks Vizzare can cause matchup issues because he's a rare left-footed punter. The ball rotates significantly different when it's booted by lefties, and causes returners to get flustered. Graham even admitted the only time he muffed punts in college was due to the unorthodox spin from lefty punters.

D.J. Foster- Sophomore- 5'11" 195 pounds: Will the reward of having Foster at kick returner outweigh the risk? I don't believe so, but I can't deny, the possibility is intriguing. There are other capable options for returns, but none are as good as Foster. However, if Foster gets injured on anything besides offense, Graham will be very regretful. Foster didn't get to return any kicks in 2012. Graham insisted the team needs more impact plays in the return game. The resolution? ASU's biggest playmaker, Foster, can make Graham's dreams come into fruition. Foster makes secondaries look silly when trying to chase him down in the open field. I wouldn't be surprised if Foster ends up being removed from the position, but not based on performance. If he stays put and remains on two feet, Foster should provide the Sun Devils' offense with favorable starting position.

Richard Smith- Sophomore- 5'9", 172 pounds: The ASU athletic website claims Richard Smith is a "dangerous returns specialist" before he even did so for the Sun Devils. It may seem slightly premature, but they are on point. 4.4 speed doesn't grow on trees, and Smith burns by foes in the blink of an eye. Smith holds the first team job at punt returner and starts in the slot at receiver.